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'The Prime of Life': It's Time to Grow Up

Adulthood today is complicated, but it was complicated a hundred years ago, too.

The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Length: 432 pages
Author: Steven Mintz
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-04

The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood by Steven Mintz is a complicated book, and after reading it, adulthood will seem pretty complicated, too.

As one might expect in a history of adulthood, Mintz talks about the average age people marry, the rate at which couples divorce, the stress of mortgages, and high pressure jobs. He depressingly notes that “middle age begins when one looks into a mirror only to see a stranger. Hair grays and thins, waistlines thicken, gums recede, skin sags, lines and wrinkles grow more pronounced”; the list of undesirable changes continues. Everyone gets the point.

Within these subjects, the book covers everything from Freud to folk art, explores the ways friendship, work, and marriage have changed since the 17th century, and uses phrases like “sublimation of libidinal impulses”. The number of pop culture references is impressive and range from George Elliot to the CBS television show, The Big Bang Theory.

All this is to make several very important points. Mintz uses history to illustrate both the similarities and differences between adulthood in 2015 and adulthood in other times, so that readers can put their lives into prospective and -- perhaps allow themselves to be a little more happy with their lives.

Some of the similarities between generations are clearly meant to surprise. One point Mintz drives home: becoming an adult is hard. It’s hard today, and it was hard in the past. Despite claims to the contrary, becoming an adult has also always been a lengthy process. In other words, baby boomers and Gen-xers need to stop thinking of millennials as: “aimless, irresponsible, and emotionally immature. Stuck in a perpetual adolescence, they supposedly avoid commitment, spurn entry-level jobs, and are caught in a limbo state of prolonged adolescence, selfishness, self-indulgence, and deferred responsibility.”

To these criticisms Mintz simply responds “These complaints are not new. Condemnation of the younger generation is among this county’s oldest traditions.”

Considering that one of the only constants for today’s adult is stress (Mintz has entire chapter dedicated to “The Angst of Adulthood” and also points to such things as the term "sandwich generation"—people who are taking care of their parents and their children at the same time), perhaps it's not surprising how many of us don’t want to rush into adulthood, and try to revel in adolescence as long as possible. But is resistance to growing up just another tradition in the process of coming to adulthood? Quite possibly.

Sure, in 2015 kids of may want the perceived freedom that comes with obtaining a driver’s license, and college students may dream of economic independence from their parents. But today’s young people probably think of things such as settling down and growing up with about as much enthusiasm as the 19th century teen viewed her impending arranged marriage. And the sentiment “Don’t trust anyone over 30” seems to be as popular today as when it was coined in the '60s.

While there are many similarities between today’s adult and the adults of years past, there are certainly a few differences, as well. One of the biggest (that Mintz notes) is that this is perhaps the first time there are so few commonalities between all adults. Consider—today adulthood (except in legal cases) is rarely linked with age; it’s not automatic and doesn’t just happen when someone reaches the voting age or can legally consume a cocktail. Why? According to Mintz, most 20-somethings in the US haven’t finished college, aren’t working full-time/aren’t financially independent, aren’t married, and don’t have children. Most likely, though, they are having sex, but whether or not having sex makes someone considered an adult today (which arguably it may have 50 or 60 years ago) is questionable.

Another complication: some traditional markers such as marriage and children are eschewed by some “adults” altogether. Marriage, particularly in the United States, is almost in a freefall: “in the half century after 1950, the marriage rate in the United States fell by two-thirds. Were this trend to continue, the marriage rate would reach zero in 2042.”

Mintz also questions whether, as a nation, Americans value one of the main concepts that should be synonymous with adulthood: maturity. In a society that seems to value everything youthful—from appearances to mindsets, is it possible, as Mintz hopes, to not only reclaim but also to embrace this definition of adulthood? “If immaturity connotes irresponsibility and abandon, then maturity implies responsibility, reliability, sensible judgment, and the wisdom that can be acquired only through experience and reflection. This is the definition of adulthood that deserves to be reclaimed.” It’s a nice sentiment, if not necessarily a particularly realistic one, to end on.

While it’s perhaps a little too easy to get caught up in the small details—Mintz is a good storyteller and his examples, particularly from centuries past are engaging. Ultimately, Mintz provides a very readable, and very interesting, history of an all too often overlooked subject.


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